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It was 3 or 4 in the morning (I don't remember which as sleep's memory is not reliable) when my husband's Fox News alert woke us. He read it, relayed it with a jolt, we questioned it as though in a dream, then, still in sleep's embrace, we fell back to sleep.
My husband awoke around 5 to get ready for work and turned on the news. I slept another hour then clicked on my smartphone to educate me further.
Even when I fully awoke I did not feel panicked. Had I heard that he had died, I know I would have felt a dreaded sense of insecurity, of finality. To hear plans of resigning was a topic I've already discussed with friends and pondered about aging priests in general. It a subject that I realize could change the definition of my job as director of religious education by next fall.
I also knew that a pope could resign. That seems to be the biggest surprise of all for many Catholics and non-Catholics.
I was not overtly surprised. Curious, yes, but not surprised.
I find my reaction strange but that was my reaction.
Something else that kept my view practical were the comments made by my 81 year old father last week:
"I've outlived my life. Things are changing too fast." and "Is anything wrong with the Pope? He seems to have aged a lot. He's slowed down quite a bit lately."
As a man in his 80's, my dad saw through the Pope even while thousands of miles apart. Dad can relate to the Pope's movements, dilemma, and decision. He knows.
So the reality check last week was a reminder to me that our Pope is a man, a weak, frail, aging man.
I also remembered that our Pope did not want to become Pope when first elected. When he came into this position he was at a time in his life when he hoped he could focus peacefully on prayer and God and music.
God had other plans.
If we keep this perspective, none of the events of today are surprising.
In Pat Archbold's column today he writes:
"While we all witnessed an enfeebled holy man suffer great infirmity in love and patience, Cardinal Ratzinger must have seen much more. He must have seen how during those years of decline the Vatican bureaucracy becomes de facto pope and how that de facto Pope can thwart and subvert the will of the legitimate Pope. I wonder if Pope Benedict made the decision early that he would not subject the Church to a papacy of bureaucrats? That when his time came, he would step aside. We may never know the answer to this question, for the Pope would never say it, but there it is."
I Want My Pope Back by Pat Archbold
I tend to agree with Pat but I am neither a theologian, a prophet, or a Cardinal. My thoughts really don't count and, again, I usually don't get on the band wagon because there are too many great writers with bigger columns out there who know more than I. But this is my personal white space, be it as it may. Because of that, and the randomness of my thought process, I share my thoughts and my one concern here in this space.
While not shocked, speechless, or panicked; there is a certain worry that I cannot shake off.
It began a couple years ago at a Mother's Night Out with friends when someone mentioned a priest we all knew who was retiring. One of my friends struck the table with an emphatic, passionate fist full of napkin and said, "I still say a priest cannot retire from their vocation. That would be like me telling my husband and family 'I've decided to retire' from being a wife and mother when I turn 80. Ridiculous."
She was pretty passionate about the whole topic.
And I've thought about it ever since. Once a priest, always a priest. And couples are married in the sight of God until death do us part. But these are vocations, not jobs. Still, with vocations come duties that we provide to our families even when we become old and feeble. I see it with my own parents. They are aging yet still serve one another. Only death will end their commitment to this holy office and to their serving one another and their family.
I think the unopened can of worms is when we start questioning, if the Pope can resign from his vocational duties, if priests can retire from their duties, when can married spouses resign from theirs? That's a scary concern. Did St. Peter resign? No, he died a martyr for the faith.
Is this something new to ponder in the 21st century?
And yet Pope Celestine V resigned in the year 1294 and he went on to become a saint. And that is our ultimate goal. To become saints.
The first pope St. Peter died a martyr's death. Pope Celestine resigned. Pope JP II served until a natural death. We know them all to be saints.
God's time is not our time. God's ways are not our ways.
It gets confusing and complicated. I can go still deeper but respect for my Catholic faith gives me a courtesy of remaining silent. Because I have faith in something more than myself. This is not about me. And this is not about Pope Benedict.
And he knows it isn't. He has taken it to prayer over and over again. He has fought the good fight and been a steadfast warrior.
As always, Archbishop puts it beautifully:
"From his work as a young theologian at Vatican II to his ministry as universal pastor of the Church, Joseph Ratzinger has served God and the global Christian community with intelligence, eloquence and extraordinary self-sacrifice.
As Pope Benedict XVI, he has led God's people through complicated times with uncommon grace, and his stepping down now, at 85, from the burdens of his office is another sign of his placing the needs of the Church above his own. Catholics worldwide owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. He will remain in our hearts and always be in our prayers." ~ Archbishop Charles Chaput
I truly believe there is a rhyme and reason to this madness.
Do I think the past eight years have taken their toil on Pope Benedict's mind as well as his body?
Without a doubt. He has, more than any of us, become acquainted with this madness. Anyone who works for the church sees the madness. It's finding God within the madness that demands faith.
Pope Benedict knows where to find God. The Pope feels he must decrease so that God can increase. (John 3:30) There are periods in our lives when this must happen. Do we listen to the Holy Spirit or go about our own agenda?
Pope Benedict saw his successor Pope JP II serve until death. He knows things we do not. And he only owes explanation to God alone. For any of us who think we deserve an explanation, we need to remember who we are and who HE is.
There are times we look at our Church and are tempted to sigh in despair. The Church is like a pre-teen child with annoying moods, crooked teeth, and an argumentative personality. A mother see things she would change about her child and, yes, even things that need to be changed but she still loves her child. Do we look at the Church with this unconditional love? I believe Pope Benedict XVI does.
And there comes a time, when the mother must let the child go.
For whatever reason, Pope Benedict believes he can better serve the church and fulfill his vocation through prayer. In many ways the Pope is choosing the better part.
I know exactly where the Pope stands. I contemplate, at times, the insignificance of my task as a DRE (director of religious education). Do I really make a difference? Isn't this all futile? What matters and what doesn't matter?
There are times I think resigning from my office as DRE would be the right thing to do. Then I could just forget the tedious paper work and pray for the Church. I could forget the cynical children and pray for the future Church. Forget the anxious parents and pray for souls. I could forget the worried teachers and just pray.
Yet, today, God calls. I love this work and I have not heard His voice clearly telling me to stop. I take it to prayer every year. I know when the answer comes, I will know. There will be someone there to fill my position just as I filled a call from God when I was asked to do so. And, most of all, there will be peace.
What I know matters is that we serve an awesome God, in many different ways, each one of us.
Do we serve Him well no matter where...whether we serve in an old dusty CCD building, in a home with family, in the active Vatican, or in the quiet of a monastery.
It isn't where do we serve. It's how do we serve.
Sometimes prayer is enough.
Ironically, Pope Benedict has given us the blessing of this Year of Faith which I think is an honest representation of the kind of legacy he leaves behind. In a sense, he is reminding us that we all have a vocation to serve, to spread the Gospel, to evangelize and, most of all, to keep the faith alive through the Church.
Still the Holy Spirit needs a megaphone. There is someone out there God is calling to be our voice within the Church for however long HE wills it. Let's pray this someone answers that call. And let's be grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for answering the call so generously these past eight years.
Our Lent begins with this prayer. May the Holy Spirit guide us all.
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Novena prayer for a conclave
We, the people of God, gathered in solidarity as did the disciples in the Upper Room, pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the cardinals who will be in conclave for the election of the next Vicar of our Lord Jesus Christ. May the hearts of our cardinals be open to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, beyond any human judgment, to elect the candidate most pleasing to you, Heavenly Father, and who will guide the Church at this momentous time in history and the beginning of the Third Millenium.
We invoke our Mother Mary, united in prayer with the disciples in the Upper Room, to intercede for our cardinals to select the next Holy Father in docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, her divine Spouse. With Mary, Mother of God and of the Church, we entrust this conclave to your maternal and Immaculate Heart, and offer these prayers for your guidance and protection over the choosing of the next Vicar of your Son.
1 Our Father
1 Hail Mary
1 Glory Be
Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us!